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Sixth Circuit holds evidence admissible despite rogue search of nearby trailer

Author: Jim Chapman

 

In United States v. Torres, 2022 WL 13983627 (6th Cir. Oct. 24, 2022), the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was asked to determine whether the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee committed reversible error when it partially denied Defendant Rodolfo Torres’ motion to suppress based upon alleged police misconduct. The relevant facts and the Sixth Circuit’s holding are as follows.


On March 5, 2019, Knox County Tennessee Sheriff’s Lieutenant Chris Bryant swore out an affidavit before a Knox County criminal court judge in support of an application for a search warrant. In his affidavit, Lt. Bryant alleged probable cause and reasonable grounds for believing that evidence of violations of two Tennessee drug offenses committed by Torres and his wife would be found at their residence at 8537 Old Rutledge Pike, Knoxville, Knox County, Tennessee (8537 Old Rutledge Pike). Lt. Bryant’s request for the search warrant arose out of three sales of marijuana to a confidential informant. Based upon Lt. Bryant’s application and affidavit, the criminal court judge signed the search warrant that authorized a search for the following evidence:


All controlled substances, controlled substances paraphernalia, scales and mixing devices, packaging materials, and equipment, devices, records, computers and computer discs, books or documents adapted and used for the purpose of producing, packaging, dispensing, delivering or obtaining controlled substances, or recording transactions involving controlled substances, indicia of ownership, dominion, or control over premises . . . photographs of any persons involved in criminal conduct, all financial records pertaining to the distribution of the proceeds of the violation of the criminal laws specified above . . . any evidence or items which would be used to conceal the foregoing or prevent its discovery, any weapons, and any cellular telephones or vehicles found to be associated with [Torres and his wife] at 8537 Old Rutledge Pike, Knoxville, Knox County, Tennessee.


The warrant permitted the officers “to search [Torres and his wife] and the premises of [Torres and his wife] located in a single family type residence and out buildings with an address of 8537 Old Rutledge Pike.” Finally, two exhibits were attached to the warrant. “Exhibit A” included pictures of the residence at 8537 Old Rutledge Pike, and “Exhibit B” included maps of the area with the location of 8537 Old Rutledge Pike highlighted in red.

By the terms of the search warrant, the officers’ search was to be confined to the residence, garage, and outbuildings at 8537 Old Rutledge Pike. However, when they executed the search warrant, the officers also searched a trailer located at 8533 Old Rutledge Pike. Although the trailer shared a gravel driveway or path with the residence at 8537 Old Rutledge Pike, the trailer was located just over the boundary line separating the two properties. The trailer was visible in the plat map attached as Exhibit B to the search warrant and appeared just outside of the red boundary line of 8537 Old Rutledge Pike.

While executing the search warrant, officers seized twelve firearms, a ballistic vest, ammunition, magazines for firearms, scopes, and over $25,000 in cash from the residence. They also seized a rifle, marijuana paraphernalia, and marijuana from the garage. After searching the residence, garage, a vehicle on the property, and a shed, the officers checked the perimeter of the house and the property to see if there was anything that they might have missed. As they completed their search of the perimeter, the officers noticed a travel trailer about 100 to 200 yards from the garage. Looking through the window of the travel trailer, officers identified marijuana residue and a knife that had marijuana residue on it. Lt. Bryant gave instructions to the other officers to break the padlock that was securing the trailer. Inside the trailer, the officers found about thirty-five (35) pounds of packaged marijuana. Lt. Bryant later conceded that he did not look at the property map before opening the trailer and that, based on the Exhibit attached to the warrant, the officers should have known that they were not authorized to search the trailer.


Following the search, Torres was charged in Tennessee state court with possession of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony. Torres was also federally indicted on one count of being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm in violation of federal law. In this federal indictment, the Government relied on the thirteen (13) firearms that were retrieved from Torres’ home and garage during the search; he was not indicted on any federal drug charges.


Thereafter, the state court held a preliminary hearing on the state charges against Torres. At that hearing, Lt. Bryant admitted that the scope of the warrant did not include the trailer and that the warrant included maps of the boundary lines of the property to be searched. Accordingly, the state court dismissed all of the state criminal charges against Torres.


On November 14, 2019, Torres filed a motion to suppress in the federal case, arguing that the officers had exceeded the scope of the warrant and that the remedy for a search of places not covered by the warrant was the suppression of all of the evidence seized during the search. A United States Magistrate Judge filed a Report and Recommendation (R&R) in which the Magistrate Judge agreed that the search of the trailer exceeded the scope of the warrant. However, because the officers did not unreasonably exceed the scope of the search warrant in searching the trailer, the Magistrate Judge found that the search of the trailer did not convert the entire search into a general search and further found that only the evidence seized from the trailer should be suppressed subject to the exclusionary rule.

Torres timely objected to the R&R, but the District Court rejected his objections, adopted the Magistrate Judge’s R&R, and denied Torres’ motion to suppress, in part. In denying Torres’ motion to suppress (in part), the District Court relied upon the following facts: (1) although the officers had access to a map that would have indicated that the trailer was not on Torres’ property, the warrant specifically included and allowed the officers to search the outbuildings to the property; (2) the trailer was at the end of a gravel driveway shared by the property listed in the search warrant and an adjacent property; and (3) the only pathway to the trailer was via the driveway on Torres’ property. As a result, the District Court suppressed the evidence seized from the trailer but denied Torres’ motion to suppress to the extent that he requested a blanket suppression of all of the evidence seized as a result of the execution of the warrant. Following the partial denial of his motion to suppress, Torres entered into a conditional plea agreement under which he retained the right to appeal District Court’s partial denial of his motion to suppress.


On appeal, Torres raised a single issue: whether the appropriate remedy for the unauthorized search of the trailer was a blanket suppression of all of the evidence seized from all of the locations searched by the officers, or whether the appropriate remedy was only the suppression of the evidence seized from the trailer as the District Court held. Torres argued that the search of the trailer was inherently unreasonable because the warrant did not include the trailer as a location to be searched, and therefore, the District Court erred in denying his motion to suppress in full and in refusing a blanket suppression of all of the evidence seized pursuant to the search warrant.


The Sixth Circuit disagreed. In affirming the District Court’s suppression order, the Sixth Circuit explained that a search pursuant to a valid search warrant may devolve into an invalid, general search if the officers flagrantly disregard the limitations of the search warrant. In other words, a blanket suppression can only be warranted where an officer flagrantly disregards the limitations of a warrant by exceeding the scope of the warrant in the places searched. Stated another way, although an officer exceeds the scope of the warrant by searching places beyond the warrant’s terms, blanket suppression is warranted only where the officer flagrantly and unreasonably exceeds the scope of the warrant. The Sixth Circuit opined that the District Court did not err in concluding—based upon the facts before it—that the officers had not flagrantly disregarded the limitations of the search warrant and, therefore, had not erred in denying Torres’ request for a blanket suppression of the evidence.

The Sixth Circuit explained that the remedy of a blanket suppression has typically been reserved for “exceptionally egregious circumstances” and that the facts in this case did not satisfy that high bar. In fact, the Sixth Circuit noted that it had never authorized the remedy of a blanket suppression. Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the District Court did not err in suppressing only the evidence seized from the trailer and in denying Torres’ motion to suppress all of the evidence recovered from the search.

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